Try imagining a bossanova sung in Moroccan Arabic. Then make things even more difficult: imagine the author suddenly turning into a virtuoso soul singer. Now you have an idea of what the Soul of Morocco sounds like, according to Oum El Ghait Benessarahoui.
Soul of Morocco, this 35-year-old artist explained, is her third album, but the first aimed at the international market. With it, Oum – as she is known in her home country – hopes to give a new dimension to a career which officially began when she was 17, with a TV appearance in her home country. By that time, however, she had already moved a few steps in the musical field. She joined a gospel choir at 14. Here, the North African girl who revered Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston as her musical sources of inspiration, began to develop her charming voice and highly recognizable style.
Nevertheless, the fulfilment of her long-sought dream – to become a professional musician – took time. This was spent between Marrakech, where she grew up, also attending music lessons with an Italian piano player named Armando, and Rabat, where she moved for reasons other than music. In the capital city, in fact, she got a degree from a school of architecture. Although she left Marrakech to complete her education, she later acknowledged that at the time she still had “the idea of singing” in her mind. She made another step towards this goal three years later, moving to Casablanca. Here she joined a band called ‘Brotherhood’ and took part in some of their shows. One of the real turning points of Oum’s career was in 2002, when she met a French producer, Philippe Delmas, who asked her to go to France for some studio recordings and live concerts. However, her first album, Lik’oum, only came out in 2009, followed by Sweerty in 2012. Both are marked by a choice that, in her own words, made Oum feel “more authentic and more natural.” She sings mainly in darija, the local variety of Arabic. As for their style, Oum’s first albums are a trip into different musical moods, from pop, jazz, and soul, to hip hop, ‘trip hop,’ and funk.
Strange as it may seem, this choice is not an attempt to abandon the rich Moroccan musical tradition. Oum was not the first Maghrebi artist to sing – for instance – jazz songs in Arabic, and Soul of Morocco itself is meant to show the “cultural, ethnic, and linguistic intermingling” that the country experienced throughout its history. “It seems to me more Moroccan than the previous albums,” Oum said in an interview short before its release. Therefore, despite the multiple cultural influences (also including Brazilian, Caribbean, and Indian music) that we find in her compositions, the North African singer feels a deep link with her own roots. Yet, as a daughter of the desert (her first name means ‘mother of relief’ – it is a reference to a rainy day in a waterless land) she conceives these same roots in a broad way, going beyond the border of her own country.
She made this very clear in November 2012, when she opened the fourth edition of the Taragalte Festival of Music in M’hamid El Cgizlane, a place to which she also pays tribute in Soul of Morocco (one of the tracks is called ‘Taragalte’). The 2012 festival theme was “Women of the desert.” In addition to Moroccan musicians, it hosted performers from Mauritania and even the then war-torn Mali.
Oum was very vocal in admitting that this event, from her point of view, was also a message of solidarity she wanted to send to the women of that ravaged country. “It’s a chance to say that we support them, and the freedom of the arts, and the freedom just to be,” she told journalists. Then, she added, “It’s a message that is even stronger because it comes through the voices of women.”
This deep consciousness of what can be called a common background to many African peoples becomes very evident when listening to Soul of Morocco. African beats, Amazigh and Sufi tunes are among the musical traditions Oum makes the best use of. This is not surprising, given what she explained in a recent interview to Jeune Afrique, “I am Moroccan, which means Arabic, Mediterranean, and African” all at the same time.
To get the best of the fusion of so many different musical experiences, Oum recorded Soul of Morocco together with musicians from all over the world: the saxophonist Alain Debiossat, the oboe player Jean-Luc Fillon, the Guyana-born guitarist Patrick Marie-Magdeleine, and the Cuban double-bass player Damian Nueva Cortes. It is also with their help that Oum will try to become popular on the international scene. (D.M.)